Sunday, June 8, 2008

REMEMBERING CHERCHEZ LA FEMME

While watching Senator Hillary Clinton suspend her campaign for the presidential nomination in an eloquent, televised exit speech I swallowed a lump of sadness about her defeat. However, I applauded her remarks directed to women in which she made much of her remarkable, (soon-to-be unremarkable for other women who aspire to the presidency) run for the highest office in the U.S. She encouraged them to keep on trying to reach their potential. Her comments about the climate for women and success caused me to ruminate about a column I once wrote for the “Daily Iberian” in New Iberia, Louisiana, entitled “Cherchez la femme.” At the time I wrote this column, I had just returned from a two-year sojourn in Iran where I observed, first-hand, the second-class status of women in the Mideast. Through that experience of watching the denigration of women, I was inspired to write “Cherchez,” a column which began as a thorn in men’s sides: the subject of women’s rights. It gradually became a potpourri of comments concerning subjects ranging from Persian-bred cats to women’s love of old shoes. Translated, “cherchez la femme” means “look for the woman.” At one time in a period of French history, the phrase gained popularity in Paris when a rash of street murders occurred almost weekly. When the gendarmes had exhausted all leads and needed a suspect for the crimes, they would scratch their heads and point to a woman, exclaiming, “Cherchez la femme.” In my column, I used the phrase in a positive way to encourage people to look at the world at large, intimating that if the reader wanted to follow significant developments in the scientific, legal, medical, artistic, and, yes, domestic fields, they should “look for the woman.” After two years of writing this column, I seemed to have descended from the soapbox into the dishwasher, so I bowed out of writing about women’s rights for awhile.

One of the lighter columns of “Cherchez” which brought favorable response was entitled “We Need Another Lady Godiva,” and I’m including it here in its entirety. From time to time, I may include “Cherchez” columns that might “speak to your condition,” whether you’re a male or a female reader.

WE NEED ANOTHER LADY GODIVA
In this century of tax complaints, we often say that we’d do anything to help reduce the nation’s tax burdens. I re-read a story the other day that could inspire action to reduce taxes if some female was just willing to perform the act. I refer to the story of Lady Godiva.

One morning I went to the Main Street Branch of the New Iberia, Louisiana library for coffee and began chatting with the branch librarian. I wasn’t really looking for a news story, but I came away with a very bare fact: the librarian was a descendant of Lady Godiva, the woman with long tresses who became famous for her ride in her “altogether” through Coventry, England.

“I guess you could say she was the first woman streaker,” I told the librarian.

“No,” she corrected me, “she was probably the first protester. She didn’t burn her bra. She just did away with her riding habit. But she didn’t ride to expose her body; she rode to protest heavy taxation of Coventry that her own husband had imposed on the citizens.”

Somehow, I can’t visualize the First Lady saddling up, nude, to free us from tax servitude. But Lady Godiva was more concerned for Coventry’s welfare than for “what every woman should wear.” In the year 1043, Lady Godiva married Leofric, Earl of Marcia, and with him, founded a monastery at Coventry, endowing it with half the land of Coventry and 24 lordships. She also ruled the village of Madeley, Staffordshire after King William’s accession.

Legend tellers recount that Lady Godiva repeatedly implored her husband to reduce Coventry’s tax burdens. He finally became so exasperated that he agreed to do so if she would ride naked through the crowded marketplace. One legend reveals that Lady Godiva then undertook the ride, accompanied by two soldiers, her hair covering all her body except her legs. And upon her return, Leofric issued a charter “freeing Coventry from servitude.”

In “Chronicle at Large,” 1572, Richard Grafton wrote that Godiva first asked the rulers of the city to order all citizens to remain indoors at the time appointed for her ride. She then galloped through the town accompanied by her husband, escorts, and, of course, gentlewomen. So the people heard the horses but did not see her streaking. However, in the 17th century, a manuscript appeared in the Coventry archives that stated Godiva’s horse neighed during the ride, whereupon a citizen let down his window and looked out. This Peeping Tom was either struck blind or dead.

“Well,” I told the librarian, “since you’re a direct descendant, you’re the logical choice for the woman who will carry on this tradition of helping reduce tax burdens today. What are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing,” she replied. “In the first place my hair isn’t long enough – and, in the second place, what if my horse should whinny?”

Tax burdens still weigh heavily on bodies that refuse to “bare,” but, as I’ve pointed out before, if you want the facts about spectacular, progressive incidents in history, “cherchez la femme.”
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